[6 January 2008]
The first two installments in the Bourne franchise arrived like sharp, icy blasts of air in the middle of tepid summer movie seasons, reminding moviegoers of the possibility of creativity and originality within blockbusters. The third in this action-thriller trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum, is no different.
In fact, while it is just as engaging as the first two, it is also more engaged, more of of-its-time. The Bourne Ultimatum is the first in the series to not only successfully update Robert Ludlum’s cold war spy novels to reflect unipolar geopolitics, but also bring them into the post-9/11 world of secret CIA prisons, officially sanctioned torture, and wide-scale electronic surveillance.
While The Bourne Ultimatum’s reflection of modern political reality certainly enriches the film for today’s movie-goers, it’s not what made it a box-office success. It’s first and foremost a masterfully constructed action movie, albeit one with a familiar sounding action-movie plot. In the first installment, amnesiac CIA agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) was found floating half-dead in the Mediterranean Sea. Ever since, Bourne has been racing around the grand capitols of Europe, evading murderous intelligence agents and trying to find his true identity.
In the first two installments he learns that he’s the product of a CIA project, codenamed Treadstone, to recondition operatives and train them as deep-undercover assassins. Treadstone had spun out of control and all evidence of it needed to be buried, including Bourne. The Bourne Ultimatum finds Bourne much closer to finding the answers he’s looking for. Those answers, Bourne believes, may lie in a successor program to Treadstone, the ominously named Operation Blackbriar.
The plot may sound hackneyed, but the movie never feels that way. This feeling of originality within a faithful genre movie is due in large part to its unique sense of movement. The Bourne series has always been successful at fusing a feeling of grittiness and rough-edged physicality with an impression of inexhaustible energy and hyper-mobility. It’s the equivalent of riding a bullet train with a sticky floor.
This rough grace is exemplified by the film’s much-praised chase scene set in the narrow and twisting streets of Tangiers’ ancient medina district. Bourne is rushing to save agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who is aiding him in his search of the pre-Bourne identity, from one of the agency’s assassins. As Bourne races along the tightly spaced, medieval rooftops, you’re awed by his athleticism and courage, but you also never doubt that each feat is painfully struggled for. When he makes a particularly long leap across roofs, you can almost feel the shock in your own knees and ankles as he lands.
The creation of this feeling of visceral, physical empathy with Bourne is attributable to a number of strategies by the filmmakers. First, while the action is fast and chaotic, it is also controlled in such a way that its energy can be sustained and the viewers kept on board. Second, as director Paul Greengrass mentions in the DVD’s audio commentary, every movement of the characters and every interaction with the environment is intelligible in terms of cause and effect. That may sound obvious but it’s a rule not often followed by action films. Third, the spaces in which the action takes place feel like living, real environments, rather than picturesque backdrops. Scenes are filmed on real streets often with real crowds.
This living, lived-in quality extends from the streets of the cities in which the film is set to the cites themselves. One of the best parts of the Bourne series has been its authentic-feeling portrayal of major international metropolises—Moscow, Paris, Turin, London, Madrid, Tangier, and New York in this installment. Unlike a lot of other films (and not just action movies), The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t establish its urban settings by briefly showing a tourist landmark and then cutting to a nondescript street serving as stand-in for wherever the characters are supposed to be in that represented city. Instead, it gives ground level, textured views of places like parks, corner stores, and bus stops—the places that people go everyday on their way to and from work. The result is that each city comes across as unique and is presented with a sense of familiarly and respect.
Bourne is nearly always moving—fast¬—through these cites, and even more often moving between them. The dark mirror of Bourne’s hyper-mobility is the CIA’s real time, all-pervasive, hyper-surveillance. In one example, a CIA substation in London electronically tracks telephone calls, scanning for keywords. When a reporter for the Guardian calls his editor and tells him he’s investigating something called “Operation Blackbriar”, the CIA has agents tailing him in a matter of hours.
Even more than the first two installments, The Bourne Ultimatum is a nightmarish vision of an unrestrained intelligence agency which, having lost its sole counter-power in the Soviet Union, has penetrated every corner of the globe. There’s not even the complicated webs of power familiar from previous Bournes and Ludlum novels, there’s only the CIA There’s no shady connections with corporations, terrorist groups, or foreign governments, only solitary, stone-faced “assets” ready to kill on command.
The filmmakers obviously have in mind an extreme version of current geopolitics and US foreign policy. Within Langley headquarters, there’s talk of “rendition protocols” and “national security emergencies.” Bourne is shown wearing a black hood and undergoing controlled drowning (aka “waterboarding”). There’s inside leaks, investigative reporters, and senate hearings. There’s also a sense that an undefined national trauma has occurred and that there’s been a rupture from past policies; a bad-guy CIA official (David Strathairn) reminds his partner of the “danger we face” and declares that now there will be “no more red tape.”
While it’s laudable that the filmmakers have brought this espionage thriller into the Age of Guantanamo, it is regrettable that it also repeats and perhaps amplifies problematic depictions of the CIA and its relation to US power. First, the image of the CIA as a smooth-operating, nearly omnipotent actor is a myth that works to romanticize the agency. As a world actor—that is, when it goes beyond its role as an intelligence gathering service—the CIA is really a glorified arms trader and money courier.
When intervening in other countries it nearly always works by aiding friendly governments or by fostering dissident groups—often with results that are anything but smooth. And when trying to carry out operations independently it sometimes proves comically inept, as when it tried to poison Castro’s cigar and place exploding seashells in his favorite lagoon.
Of course, the agency’s ineptness can have more sinister results, as when it mistakes a random person for a suspect and then holds them incommunicado and tortures them (see, for example, the case of Khalid El-Masri). The Bourne Ultimatum’s depiction of the CIA as virtually all knowing and all powerful and Jason Bourne as a superhuman, self-sufficient operative works to perpetuate the “James Bond” image of the CIA.
The second CIA myth perpetuated by the film is that the agency operates as a “rogue” or shadow government independent of elected politicians. As Tim Weiner points out in Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, the agency does not make decisions about which governments to overthrow or who to support in a civil war; the President does. Just as George W. Bush is responsible for “extraordinary rendition”, J.F.K was responsible for the Bay of Pigs, and Eisenhower was responsible for overthrowing Mosaddeq and paving the way for the Iranian Revolution. The CIA is just a foot soldier for US foreign policy.
That said, The Bourne Ultimatum is valuable in documenting contemporary fear and resentment of US policy, just as films like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor captured the post-Watergate zeitgeist. And, thankfully, this film is one of the most enjoyable documents of cultural paranoia and political alienation you’ll see this year.
The DVD extras are fun and well produced. They are all making-of mini-documentaries—thematically broken down into location, stunts, fighting, and driving—that avoid celebrity worship and instead engender respect for the professional technicians and skilled crew behind the scenes.